Security and Integrity, Soccer, Europe, Global

Talking data, AI and engaging content with the man behind OptaJoe

Duncan Alexander, chief data editor for soccer statistics company Opta, on the figures that matter.

by Tom Bassam
Talking data, AI and engaging content with the man behind OptaJoe

OptaJoe was launched on Twitter in 2009 and has gone on to become central to the soccer media zeitgeist, spawning foreign cousins and crossing into other sports with its matter of fact presentation of data.

In a modern media landscape of second screens, live blogs and digital debate, OptaJoe has become a B2C face for what, in Opta Sports, is primarily a B2B company.

Now part of the Stats Perform family following DAZN Group’s decision to sell the majority of its B2B business to STATS earlier this year, Opta remains a partner to the Premier League, English soccer’s top flight, overseeing event data and distribution.

Speaking to SportsPro ahead of his appearance at the Fan Conference, Duncan Alexander, the man behind OptaJoe, offered his insights on the relationship between data and fans.

How does the success of OptaJoe reflect the growing appetite among soccer fans – and sports fans in general - for stats and data?

Opta had been around for more than a decade before OptaJoe was started in 2009 but Twitter proved the perfect forum to reach fans directly and shrewdly advertise the sort of content we could create from our data. It has also allowed us to seed new ideas and concepts, like we did with Expected Goals a couple of years ago, not just by explaining what it is, but by doing so with examples and stories, which is what people want from football after all. Data is just another building block in creating stories.

Data has become a key part of the fabric of sport

How has the availability of more stats helped to enhance the fan experience during live sports events?

30 years ago if you weren’t at your club’s game then it was unlikely to be on television, so you were restricted to Teletext, Ceefax or premium rate club phonelines where they imparted news very slowly to maximise the profit. Now you can find out extraordinary amounts of information about every player in every major competition in the world in seconds on a tiny computer in your pocket. The success of something like Fantasy Premier League, played by more than 6 million people worldwide, and powered by Opta’s live data, means that people are following entire leagues more closely now than journalists would have done decades back.

In what ways can sports teams make better use of their data to engage with their fans across their social and digital channels?

Sports data is a great way to discover players in unfamiliar competitions or amplify leagues where teams are doing something unusual or noteworthy. Even stars can use data to tell a story, like Harry Kane’s August drought in the Premier League (highlighted by Opta back in 2016), which both he, Tottenham and the wider media have referenced and created content with, particularly since he ended it in 2018.

How does a company like Opta ensure the data and stats it is sharing is accurate?

Firstly, our training process for analysts is incredibly rigorous; it can take a recruit up to six months before they are ready for a live game. Secondly, we have invested in bespoke collection technology for over 20 years and that means we have the most accurate data but that it is also available in real-time. We also have a series of quality assurance processes - live, post-game, post matchweek - to ensure our data is as accurate as possible and we offer an integrity service that studies the numbers to look for possible corruption and sporting fraud.

In what ways do you think the role of stats and data in sports will evolve as products going forward?

Technological advances are already allowing us to interrogate datasets and extract new insights and better stories. Artificial intelligence (AI) models will further speed this up and allow fans, the media and clubs to get the bespoke information they need, faster than ever before. The golden rule remains though: data is there to augment the story, not be the story. The best stat is the one that gets so widespread you hear it in conversation on the bus.

How can sports teams best take advantage of the data now at their disposal, and what are some of the most common ways they are doing so already?

Data is now deeply imbedded in decision-making processes throughout football clubs, from player and team performance, to recruitment and opposition analysis. The clubs who have leveraged it most effectively are the ones who have made sure that learnings from data are put into concepts and language that people throughout the organisation can understand. We now have a generation of football managers in their 30s and 40s who spent their whole playing careers responding to and utilising data so it is no longer seen as a separate arm but as an integral ingredient to success.